A History of Sport

By Tim Lambert

Sport In The Ancient World

Egyptian Sport

People have always played sports. In Ancient Egypt, people went swimming. They also enjoyed boxing, wrestling, and archery. They also played a game that involved standing on a boat and trying to knock the opposing team into the water with a stick.

The Olympic Games

In Ancient Greece, athletic competitions were held during religious festivals in every Greek city. However the Olympic Games began in Olympia in 776 BC in honor of Zeus, the leaders of the gods and people came from all over Greece and the Greek colonies to take part in them. Wars stopped to allow everyone to take part. Athletes competed in boxing, wrestling, running, horse racing, chariot racing, and the pentathlon (five athletic events). Winners were not given medals. Instead, they were given a crown of leaves.

Women were not allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. However, women had their own games dedicated to the goddess Hera (wife of Zeus). The Heraean games were held once every 4 years.

Roman Gladiators

In Rome and other major cities in the Roman Empire gladiators were men (or sometimes women) who fought, sometimes to the death to provide entertainment. The first gladiators fought in 264 BC at a funeral. Six gladiators fought to entertain the guests. The word gladiator means a man who fights with a gladius (a short sword) and the word for a gladiatorial fight was a munus, which means a duty owed to the dead.

In time gladiatorial fights became separated from funerals. They evolved into public shows put on by rich Roman politicians to please their supporters. Eventually, Roman Emperors were expected to put on costly shows to keep the poor people of Rome happy. At first, gladiators were slaves but later some were criminals who were sentenced to fight for a set period of time or a set number of games. Surprisingly some people volunteered to be gladiators. Again they fought for a set period of time or number of games and were given a large sum of money if they survived.

The Romans also liked chariot racing. There were four teams, greens, blues, reds, and whites. The charioteers were treated as heroes. However, being a charioteer was dangerous and could be fatal. In the Roman Empire larger towns also had an amphitheater where sports such as cockfighting were held and sometimes gladiators fought to the death. Some Roman towns also had theaters.

Sport in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, games for the poor were cheap like wrestling, running races, and playing dice.

The main pastime of the upper class was hunting. Men hunted deer with packs of dogs and killed them with arrows. They also hunted wild boar with spears. Both men and women went hawking. Knights also took part in tournaments. At them, knights fought with wooden lances, swords, or maces. This was called jousting. There were also tourneys (fights between teams). Tournaments often lasted four days. Two days were for jousting, one was for tourneys and one was for archery competitions.


Golf is believed to be a corruption of the Dutch word ‘kolve’, which meant club. The Dutch played games with clubs in the Middle Ages but golf developed in Scotland in the 15th century. Meanwhile, the first recorded bowling green was laid out in Southampton in the 13th century.

Even for Medieval peasants life was not all hard work. People were allowed to rest on Holydays. On them, poor people danced and wrestled. They also played a very rough form of football. Men from two villages played on a ‘pitch’, which might include woods and streams! Injuries were common.

Furthermore, in the Middle Ages, people made skates from cow’s shoulder blades and went ice skating. People also enjoyed cruel sports like cockfighting and bear-baiting. (A bear was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it).

Sport in the 16th Century and 17th Century

Although the days of armored knights were over the rich still enjoyed tournaments. The contestants dressed in armor and rode horses. They fought with wooden lances and swords. The rich also went hunting deer with bows and arrows. After it was killed the deer was eaten. The rich also went hawking and falcons were trained to kill other birds. However, in Tudor times rich people did not hunt foxes.

The Tudors also liked wrestling and ‘casting the bar’, which was like shot-putting but with an iron bar. They also played billiards.

Ordinary people still played a rough version of football. And cruel ‘sports’ like cockfighting and bear-baiting were still popular.

In Tudor times people learned to swim using bundles of bulrushes as floats.

In the 17th century, traditional games like bowls continued. So did games like tennis and shuttlecock. Wealthy people also played a game called pale-maille (Pall Mall in London gets its name from an area where the game was played). Furthermore, Charles II also made yachting a popular sport.

Sport in the 18th Century

In the 18th-century people continued to play tennis and a rough version of football. In the 18th-century horse racing became a professional sport. The Jockey Club was formed in 1727 and the Derby began in 1780. Also in the 18th-century cricket took on its modern form. The first cricket club was formed at Hambledon in Hampshire about 1750.

In the 18th century, many people still watched cruel sports like cockfighting and bull baiting. Rich people liked fox hunting. Bare-knuckle boxing was also popular (although some boxers began to wear leather gloves in the 18th century).

Sport in the 19th Century

By the early 19th century many people disapproved of cruel ‘sports’ like bull-baiting and cockfighting. Bull baiting was banned in 1835. Cockfighting was banned soon afterward.

During the 19th century, many sports became organized. The London Football Association devised the rules of football in 1863. The first international match was held between England and Scotland in 1872. Meanwhile, Australian rules football was invented in 1858. In 1867 John Graham Chambers drew up a list of rules for boxing. They were called the Queensberry Rules after the Marquis of Queensberry. In 1879 the rules for the modern game of tug of war were devised. Then in 1880, the Amateur Athletics Association was founded.

Several new sports and games were invented during the 19th century. Although a form of tennis was played since the Middle Ages lawn tennis was invented in 1873. Softball was invented in 1887 by George Hancock and basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith. Volleyball was invented in 1895 by William Morgan. Netball also began in 1895. Baseball evolved from an earlier game. It became an organised sport in 1845. The National League was formed in 1876. American football evolved in the late 19th century. The American Professional Football Association was formed in 1920.

People have skated on ice for centuries but the first artificial water-based ice rink opened in 1876. Ice hockey became an organized sport in the 1870s. The International Ice Hockey Federation was formed in 1908. Modern croquet began in the 19th century. Modern badminton also developed in the late 19th century. Meanwhile, the first women’s cricket club in Britain was formed in 1887.

At the end of the 19th century bicycling became a popular sport. The safety bicycle went on sale in 1885 and in 1892 John Boyd Dunlop invented pneumatic tires. Bicycling clubs became common.

Polo is an ancient game. In the 19th century, the British learned to play polo in India and they brought it back to Britain. The first polo club in Britain was founded in 1872.

In 1891 the first World Weightlifting Championships were held. Then in 1896, the Ancient Greek Olympic Games were revived. The first Olympic Winter Games were held in 1924. Meanwhile, the first Tour de France was held in 1903. In 1954 Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in less than 4 minutes.

Ralph Samuelson invented water skiing in 1922.

Last revised 2022